The Little Sister – The greatest Hollywood novel of all time?

Previously: The Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

With Raymond Chandler so intimately associated with mid-century Los Angeles, and Chandler so determined to record the city’s excesses through his gimlet eye, it’s surprising how little of Hollywood makes it into his detective novels. The only one to dwell on the movie trade is The Little Sister, and even then, it takes twelve chapters until the reader learns the plot is somehow connected to Hollywood. Yet, The Little Sister is often nominated as one of the greatest Hollywood novels ever made.

By the time The Little Sister was published in 1949, Chandler had built a name in Hollywood as a successful screenwriter. His Oscar-nominated script for the landmark Double Indemnity (co-written with director Billy Wilder) was lauded as both an honest adaptation of James M. Cain’s bestseller and, incredibly, an improvement on the source material, which had been declared a modern classic soon after publication. Chandler was also called in to rewrite dialogue on other films, as his brisk, wisecracking style was in high demand.

Compare Chandler’s entry to Hollywood to Nathanael West’s, who churned out unremarkable scripts while writing The Day of the Locust. West did not travel to Los Angeles with stars in his eyes, nor did he arrive with impressive credentials. He strove to become a serious novelist, not a screenwriter of cheap Westerns and jungle adventures. It was the Great Depression, though, and he heard that Hollywood paid good money for writing.

He heard more than that, actually. According to Marion Meade’s Lonelyhearts, it was West’s brother-in-law—New Yorker writer S. J. Perelman—and his frothing disgust with Hollywood (“where holding a job was ‘a series of hysterical genuflexions and convulsive ass-kissings'”) that lured West to Los Angeles in search of foul-mouthed grotesqueries and high-glamour oddities he could transfer to the page. It’s not difficult to imagine Nathanael West as a character in a Raymond Chandler mystery…if only there was a blackmail angle.

As Chandler tiptoed through Hollywood’s land mines and manure fields, writing screenplays, dialogue, and movie treatments, he discovered he was not revolted or disgusted with what he saw. He was bored.

“An industry with such vast resources and such magic techniques should not become dull so soon,” he wrote in The Atlantic in 1945. “Hollywood is a showman’s paradise. But showmen make nothing; they exploit what someone else has made.”

One fascinating vein running through my list of great Hollywood novels is how often the authors were involved in the business—not only were they witnesses, they were collaborators in the insanity they documented.

“Hollywood is easy to hate,” Chandler wrote in The Atlantic, “easy to sneer at, easy to lampoon. Some of the best lampooning has been done by people who have never been through a studio gate.” By the time he wrote The Little Sister, though, he’d been through the studio gate many times.

Like Ross MacDonald, Chandler realized early on he could leverage the American hard-boiled detective novel to write about America grappling with modernity, a country suddenly flush with money and influence. The detective novel is told from the perspective of an outsider with a keen grasp of social, political, and economic realities. Chandler went heavy on the grotesque when he depicted Los Angeles, populating his novels with fortune tellers for the rich, perfumed gigolos, mob toughs talking like they had been borrowed from Hemingway’s “The Killers,” and so forth.

Chandler reels it in for The Little Sister. The novel is a bit drier than his earlier work. Most Hollywood novels brim with a fatalistic cynicism, but Chandler incorporated a more literal, perhaps even-handed, depiction of Tinseltown.

James Garner as Philip Marlowe
James Garner portrayed Chandler’s detective in Marlowe, a poorly-received 1969 adaptation of The Little Sister.

This literal-mindedness is what prevents The Little Sister from falling into a trope of American writing, the moralizing take-down of Hollywood as a depraved and greedy trade. Re-reading the novel for this post, I noted Chandler had included some basic scenes missing from the others in this list. His detective, Philip Marlowe, visits a sound stage during filming, where he witnesses a catty back-and-forth between the actors after the scene is flubbed. Afterwards, he drops in on a rising starlet in her dressing room. Another chapter is devoted to dealing with a big-shot movie agent eager to protect his client. These business-like scenes are the building blocks of the second half of The Little Sister.

In 1944, Chandler wrote to Atlantic editor Charles Morton:

Hollywood is the only industry in the world that pays its workers the kind of money only capitalists and big executives make in other industries. … Its pictures cost too much and therefore must be safe and bring in big returns; but why do they cost too much? Because it pays the people who do the work, not the people who cut coupons.

Marlowe sinks into this moneyed and territorial industry as ably as he deals with alcoholic flophouse managers and gangsters who dabble with ice-picks to the neck. Marlowe is surefooted no matter the situation. He is a man of all people, but party to none. This is the character type Chandler honed to a point. It was a character he used time and again to turn over rocks across Southern California to reveal the grubby crustaceans and sun-bleached bones beneath.

On the right the great fat solid Pacific trudging into shore like a scrubwoman going home. No moon, no fuss, hardly a sound of the surf. No smell. None of the harsh wild smell of the sea. A California ocean. California, the department-store state. The most of everything and the best of nothing. Here we go again. You’re not human tonight, Marlowe.

The Little Sister, ch. 13

The one notable grotesque in The Little Sister is the near-real-time transformation of a Midwestern bookish, prudish young woman into a walking caricature of a star-struck pursuer of Tinseltown sophistication. Like the climax of Locust, a critical point is reached, something snaps, and Hollywood’s vapory facade mists away to something more earthy and damning.

Chandler allows a sliver of redemptive light to shine through the smoke-filled backrooms, and it lands on the unlikeliest of characters. (“Lots of nice people work in pictures,” Marlowe notes unironically at one point.) Chandler was far more the softie than his books’ hard-boiled reputation suggests. The Little Sister ends in a surprising place: Perhaps the problem is not with Hollywood, but with those too eager to believe its illusions.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? – The greatest Hollywood novel of all time?

They Shoot Horses, Don't They? by Horace McCoy

Previously: What Makes Sammy Run?

Here’s where I cheat a little on my rules for determining the greatest Hollywood novel of all time. Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is marginally a Hollywood novel, in that almost every central character came to Los Angeles to enter the film industry. All are unsuccessful at it—or, more accurately, they’re still waiting for success to saunter their way. Desperate and in the throes of the Great Depression, they turn to dance marathons as a way to make money until the next studio cattle call.

The novel’s narrator is Robert Syverten, a young man who has come to Hollywood to become a director. Down and out, he meets Gloria Beatty after both fail to pick up work as film extras. Gloria tells him, in a line that resonates with the emotional power of the entire novel, “If I’m not a better actress than most of those dames I’ll eat your hat—Let’s go sit and hate a bunch of people…”

Robert remarks:

Unless you are registered by Central Castings Bureau you didn’t have much of a chance. The big studios call up Central and say they want four Swedes or six Greeks or two Bohemian peasant types or six Grand Duchesses and Central takes care of it. I could see why Gloria didn’t get registered by Central. She was too blonde and too small and looked too old.

Robert and Gloria are from the middle of the country, and the reader immediately senses they have no chance of making it in Hollywood. They are more in line with Nathanael West’s people “who came to California to die” than the in-crowd Sammy Glick and Al Manheim run around with in What Makes Sammy Run?

The pair (it’s not really true they are a “couple”) agree to enter a dance marathon. “Free food and free bed as long as you last and a thousand dollars if you win,” Gloria explains. “A lot of producers and directors go to those marathon dances. There’s always the chance they might pick you out and give you a part in a picture.”

Dance marathon contestants, April 20, 1923.

The dance marathon organizers run the contestants ragged twenty-four hours for weeks—weeks—on end. The contestants must keep moving day and night and are only allowed ten-minute breaks every two hours. They learn to eat while shaving, eat while using the toilet, and reading the newspaper while slow-dancing. Good dancers get local sponsors who supply them with free clothes, extra food, even new dance shoes. Entrants fall out of the contest due to sheer exhaustion, collapsing on the dance floor and carried off like an anonymous corpse. Some contestants are professionals who travel the country to enter dance marathons. Most are unemployed, down-on-their-luck young people who enter for the food, the cot, the music, and the company.

The novel’s grueling depiction of the entrants’ taxing tortures while fox-trotting and jitterbugging throughout an upbeat dance marathon is a model of Hollywood-in-miniature: The artifice of the organizers demanding smiles, coiffed hair, and freshened make-up for the audience, while the entrants suffer from exhaustion and dehydration, both underpaid and underfed. Even the gabby, overly-familiar emcee who attempts to bring sparkle to the competition’s grueling realities is familiar to any viewer of game shows. To drive up interest, the organizers stage a dance wedding for the audience, although the competing couple have no matrimonial intentions—echoes of today’s reality TV, which is not as real as we’re led to believe.

The novel is spare and earthy, and the language is sparse and brisk. McCoy was often compared to James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity), a comparison McCoy detested. The book is interrupted throughout by the disembodied voice of a judge rendering sentencing, an effective way to open a novel (if somewhat Hollywoodish), but a device that grows into a gimmick as the novel proceeds. Fortunately these flashes are only brief reminders, like a voice from the sky, rather than dwelled upon.

The novel’s conclusion comes crashing down in a matter of a few pages. I’m not sure I buy the narrator’s final decision, but Robert’s and Gloria’s bleak despair is palpable. Gloria’s nihilism is so pure and unyielding, it’s a miracle McCoy can maintain our interest in her for the length of the book. Robert’s naivete is almost as strong, sometimes veering into hayseed territory. Economics, greed, and detachment have left these young people clinging to a life raft leaking air, and they barely realize they’re sinking.

As mentioned, Hollywood’s presence in They Shoot Horses is slim, more like a faint church bell chime in the distance reminding the reader of the glamour and wealth not far from the seaside dance hall the marathon takes place in. McCoy’s classic is a Hollywood novel because of Tinseltown’s absence, not presence, in the story—a character everyone is talking about but is never seen by the reader.

Next: The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler

What Makes Sammy Run? – The greatest Hollywood novel of all time?

What Makes Sammy Run? by Budd Schulberg

Previously: The Day of the Locust

Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run? may not be as fatalistic or absurd as The Day of the Locust, but it’s ten times as incendiary in its depiction of the movie industry—or, perhaps, of the types of personalities it attracts.

The book is an all-American rags-to-riches Hollywood novel, with its Horatio Alger character climbing the Tinseltown ladder one backstab at a time. Like Yossarian and Holden Caulfield, the titular Sammy Glick’s name became synonymous with a particular American phenotype. In 1940s lingo, Glick was a rat, a world-class heel—today, we would call him an asshole. Sammy is relentless—he’s always sniffing out the inside track, and he will steamroll over anyone in his way up. Insults bounce off him like bullets off Superman’s chest. Sammy sets the pace. Sammy takes care of Number One. Sammy runs, and with each rung of the ladder he ascends, his footwear improves.

The novel is narrated by Al Manheim, a New York drama critic who moves to Hollywood to make a go at writing scripts for the silver screen. Manheim is an all-American personality himself. A hard drinker who can crack wise with the best of them, Mainheim thinks he’s smarter than the average bear, and from the outset he’s convinced only he sees through Sammy’s brown-nosing and incessant self-promotion. For every Sammy in America, there’s ten Manheims.

Disenchantment aside, Manheim is subliminally servile to Sammy Glick, a youngster who demonstrates unending hustle. Manheim detests Sammy’s very presence, yet goes out of his way to attend his birthday party at The Algonquin—only for Sammy to use Manheim as a stepping stone to ingratiate himself with a big-shot playwright. Manheim seeks out Sammy as soon as he’s arrived in Los Angeles, and accepts all the spec work Sammy throws his way. (One has the sense Manheim unconsciously trailed Sammy to Hollywood.) Again and again, Manheim winds up in Sammy’s company (or debt), and Manheim can always gin up excuses for how it came to be.

Budd Schulberg
Budd Schulberg

A narrator less invested in Sammy would not sustain a novel’s length without some stock contrivance, such as a biographer or journalist dispatched to recount Sammy’s rise in Hollywood. A narrator more invested in Sammy would be too toady to sustain a reader’s interest. (Besides, Sammy would toss aside a sycophant as soon as his utility was exhausted.) In Manheim—an overlooked talent and depressed alcoholic—Schulberg crafted a character who sees through Sammy yet is drawn to him as a polestar. What Makes Sammy Run? is sometimes derided as a lesser, Hollywoodized Gatsby, but I view them as different beasts. Manheim is a present and active narrator, nowhere near as invisible as Nick Carraway. What Makes Sammy Run? also doesn’t carry Gatsby‘s odor of Greek tragedy about it. There’s a shrug of the shoulders when it comes to Sammy Glick, a sense Schulberg is saying, This is the way the world works, folks.

In Sammy Glick, Schulberg introduced a character never before seen in American literature, and yet within a few paragraphs of Sammy’s introduction, he’s instantly recognizable to any reader then or now. Literature referred to as “psychologically realistic” is often considered quiet and thoughtful. What Makes Sammy Run? is boisterous, breezy, and infuriating, yet the psychology of Sammy Glick seems as vivid and credible as any “serious” character. Sammy Glick is one of the the most arresting depictions I’ve ever encountered. That spark of recognition is part of what makes him so realistic.

The realism doesn’t come from a thorough plumbing of Sammy’s interior psyche. It’s the exact opposite: Manheim is left guessing what makes Sammy tick (or run). The novel toys with the reader’s humanism, the quality of feeling there must be something more to Sammy. Schulberg’s suggestion: Maybe there’s not. There is some teasing out of Sammy’s background to humanize him, but the details don’t add up to the final result the way that two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen combine to produce water.

Sammy is an exploitative social chameleon, but it’s just as revealing what others think they’re getting from him in return. In a less materialistic, less image-oriented culture, Sammy would be treading water at best. He ascends the Hollywood ladder because those around him keep offering him a boost. Like all great Hollywood novels, the industry is a stand-in for America’s “success-driven culture,” as Schulberg put it.

Published in 1941, in an age of hard-boiled writers whose bread-and-butter were loners like Manheim, in a time when authors like Fitzgerald and John Dos Passos were recording the failures of America for posterity, they all managed to overlook the ladder-climbers, the ass-kissers, the backstabbers—Schulberg got Sammy Glick down on paper first, and that alone is remarkable.

Schulberg noted Sammy represented “a way of life that was paying dividends in the first half of the twentieth century. … It will survive as long as money and prestige and power are ends in themselves, running wild, unharnessed from usefulness.” By every metric I can locate, this way of life is still paying dividends in the first half of the twenty-first century.

A common saw in storytelling is that comedies end with a wedding and tragedies end with a funeral. Without spoiling the book, What Makes Sammy Run? is a comedy. The ending won’t make you laugh, though.

(separator)
Movie poster for the Schulberg-penned On The Waterfront. In the film, Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) testifies against mob influence over the dockworkers union. The episode is often compared to Schulberg’s congressional testimony against the Hollywood Ten and others.

What Makes Sammy Run? has been criticized as anti-Semitic and anti-industry. I can’t speak to the former, but as to the latter, it seems self-evident Schulberg wasn’t interested in buffing up Tinseltown’s less-than-stellar reputation. Unlike every other book on my list of greatest Hollywood novels ever, What Makes Sammy Run? has never been adapted to a motion picture. Before his death in 2009, Schulberg quoted Steven Spielberg as telling him the book was “anti-Hollywood and should never be filmed.”

Schulberg’s father was a movie mogul himself, a Paramount Pictures executive and the second half of a now-forgotten studio he founded with Louis B. Mayer. He once boasted to Mayer his son was “the only novelist who ever came from Hollywood.” Yet he moaned the book’s publication slammed the door on his son’s nascent screenwriting career.

Not exactly—Schulberg later wrote several screenplays of note, including On The Waterfront and A Face in the Crowd. Schulberg was a Communist Party stalwart until the party pressured him to make What Makes Sammy Run? more proletarian. His friendly, name-naming testimony to the House Committee on Un-American Activities did not endear him in certain Hollywood circles. (The Los Angeles Times has one version of the story; the Fourth International sees things a bit differently.)

Born a Tinseltown blue blood, a child who grew up with movie stars at his birthday parties and running around studio backlots while epics like Ben Hur were being filmed, Schulberg has an intricate and complicated history with Hollywood. Reading his obituary, he seems to have met (or tangled with) just about every big name in Hollywood’s Golden Age. If no one will film What Makes Sammy Run? perhaps someone can produce a biopic of Schulberg’s remarkable, if controversial, life.

Next: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy

The Day of the Locust – The greatest Hollywood novel of all time?

The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

Previously: Introduction

When I ask other writers to name the greatest Hollywood novel of all time, the more well-informed usually reply The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West.

The Day of the Locust‘s reputation as greatest of all time is earned. The opening chapter may be the finest three pages ever written on the contradictions of Southern California. With disgust (and a little glee) West holds up for display Hollywood’s winners as well as the legions of desperate outsiders shut out of Hollywood’s dream factory—those “who came to California to die.” There is plenty of foreshadowing of the novel’s conclusion, yet when the finale arrives it still surprises and shocks without coming off as a twist ending. In between the first and last chapters is not so much a novel about Hollywood, but a novel about those standing on their tiptoes looking over the fence to steal a peek of Hollywood.

West was a New Yorker transplanted to Los Angeles, and his alien status is confirmed on every page. Los Angeles architecture is almost always described in quotes. A house is “Spanish” or “New England” or “Moorish.” Hollywood debauchery is not so much of the Playboy Mansion variety, or even Roman bacchanalia, it’s just cheap and pathetic. The airing of a French farce in a Sunset Boulevard cathouse may be the least erotic description of porn on record. Simulacrums of decadence are mistaken for actual decadence, such as a horse hooves-up at the bottom of a swimming pool. (No fear, it’s a rubber prop.) California’s artifice, inauthenticity, and halfhearted stabs at opulence are the brick-and-mortar of Locust‘s plot. The first chapter ends noting “Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous,” which may as well be the novel’s thesis statement.

Scene after scene, West lays down an unsparing case damning Hollywood’s emptiness the way a district attorney builds a point-by-point case for the death penalty—but where is the Lot character who escapes the city’s inevitable downfall? West’s ship of fools are uniformly impotent and ineffective. As with West’s other gem, Miss Lonelyhearts, there is little to root for here.

Nathanael West
Nathanael West

W. H. Auden identified “West’s Disease” as “a disease of consciousness which renders it incapable of converting wishes into desires.” In Auden’s formulation, wishes are whimsical and ethereal (“I wish I was a movie star”). Actual desire motivates the individual into action: “I’m going to enroll in acting classes and practice three hours a day.”

Hollywood’s success as a dream factory is predicated on knowing our wishes and actualizing them on the silver screen. That’s why Hollywood appears a tantalizing cure for West’s Disease. Its siren song drew the characters to California from the humdrum Midwest and the frosty East Coast. Even if West’s misfits could muster up the energy and exert the effort to make it big, Hollywood’s antibodies would swarm to keep these ineffectuals a far distance from the beautiful, powerful, and well-connected. Besides, Hollywood only creates desires, it never actually fulfills them. There’s more than a few reasons West’s original title was The Cheated.

The Day of the Locust movie poster
The Day of the Locust‘s Hollywood adaptation’s garish movie poster

This inability to generate true desire makes the characters of Locust torpid and submissive. It’s why the book’s finale is so shocking: The characters finally shake off their doldrums, convert whimsical wishes to primal desires—and they act on them. The energy of the final chapter is all the more pronounced when compared to the impotence of the preceding chapters.

(The movie adaptation of Locust has been called a horror film in disguise. West’s grotesque, helpless characters, each a mere audience to their slide into destruction, and their suppressed violence released orgasmically in the finale, lines up with many horror film tropes.)

Much of The Day of the Locust is based on Nathanael West’s experiences in Los Angeles churning out film noir and adventure screenplays for Republic Productions (known as “Repulsive Productions” among Hollywood insiders; biographer Marion Meade refers to the studio as “Cheapsville.”) His produced scripts were marginally successful. His novels fared considerably less well, at least, in his lifetime.

West’s fortune seemed to be turning around right before he and his new bride were killed in an auto accident. West wasn’t exactly martyrized, but his writer associates did see to it to spread word of his genius, including Budd Schulberg, who declared The Day of the Locust captured how “the orgiastic crowd, loving you this moment, destroying you the next, is the very essence of Hollywood—as Hollywood may be the essence of our success-driven culture.”

Next: What Makes Sammy Run? by Budd Schulberg

What’s the greatest Hollywood novel of all time?

Hollywood sign
Photo by Thomas Wolf (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Let’s lay down the ground rules. A Hollywood novel is

  1. a book-length single work of fiction,
  2. regards the American film or TV industry, and
  3. is set in or around Los Angeles, California.

The Hollywood novel should not be confused with the Los Angeles novel, which may be set in similar locations but is not primarily concerned with the film industry. This includes almost all of John Fante’s work (Ask the Dust).

Also eliminated are autobiographies like Robert Towne’s The Kid Stays in the Picture and Julia Phillips’ You’ll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again, both entirely about the Hollywood film industry and both reportedly nonfiction.

And, sadly, my first rule eliminates Fitzgerald’s superb The Pat Hobby Stories as it’s a story collection, not a novel. (Otherwise, these are some of the finest, and funniest, stories ever produced about Hollywood.)

Wikipedia offers a rather lengthy list of Hollywood novels. Obviously I’ve not read them all, and so the list that follows is not the hands-down decision on the Greatest of All Time, but is a healthy representation of the form.

The list (links added as entries are published):

Gary Gygax’s Appendix N

A Hindu Rakshasa re-imagined in D&D’s Monster Manual

When I was a teen and enamored with Dungeons & Dragons, one treasure I discovered poring over the rules books was Appendix N of the Dungeon Masters Guide. D&D co-creator Gary Gygax lists nearly thirty pulp and genre writers as major influences on the development of the game. “Upon such a base I built my interest in fantasy,” Gygax wrote, “being an avid reader of all science fiction and fantasy literature since 1950.”

In the early 1970s, Gygax and Dave Arneson harvested genre and pulp fiction to invent a new game, one that felt oddly familiar yet unlike any other experience. If “a book is a pocket or portable dreamweaver,” then Gygax and Arneson systematized that dream with charts and rules and catalogs. They took the dream off the paperback page and put it on the tabletop where it can be shared and shaped by a group of people.

If you’re familiar with D&D, most of the authors listed in Gygax’s Appendix N are unsurprising: R. E. Howard (creator of Conan), H. P. Lovecraft, Fritz Leiber (whom I’ve written about before), Michael Moorcock, J. R. R. Tolkien. Some names do surprise though, such as Leigh Brackett, whose screenwriting credits include the film noir The Big Sleep and John Wayne’s Rio Bravo. (Gygax probably included her for her planetary romances set on Mars, however.) Others would have faded into obscurity if not for Gygax’s list.

I don’t recall Appendix N being discussed much by D&D players back in the day. Decades later, the D&D blog Grognardia revealed to me that Appendix N has taken on a life of its own within the community. Gygax’s list has been studied, dissected, and emulated. There’s even an Appendix N Book Club. Blogger James Maliszewski called Appendix N the “literary DNA” of D&D.

And while Appendix N names only 20th-century authors, skimming the various rule books reveals D&D’s literary DNA also includes (in no particular order):

  • Scandinavian, Teutonic, and Anglo-Saxon mythology
  • Catholic demonology
  • Biblical imagery
  • Chivalric codes and Japanese bushido
  • Fairy tales, the Brothers Grimm
  • Jewish Kabbalah
  • Greek mythology
  • Persian, Arabic, and Islamic folklore
  • Ancient mythology of Mesopotamia (Tiamat, the iconic five-headed dragon of D&D, derives from Babylonian religion)
  • Hindu legends
  • Arthurian tales (“Matter of Britain”)
  • Western European legend, from Charlemagne to the Renaissance (“Matter of France”)
  • Celtic and Irish folklore
  • Slavic folklore
  • Haitian folklore (although D&D’s zombies are more like 1968’s Night of the Living Dead)
  • Ancient Egypt (although D&D’s mummies owe more to 1932’s The Mummy with Boris Karloff)
  • Western classic literature (Frankenstein, Paradise Lost, Canterbury Tales, and more)
  • 20th-century genres beyond those listed in Appendix N (horror and science-fiction as well as fantasy, in print and film)

This list is incomplete, but already its breadth is wild. How could a game culled from this haggis hang together in a coherent fashion, let alone grow into a cultural phenomenon played and studied fifty years later? D&D’s pulp fantasy roots help, but some credit must be chalked up to its origins in the gonzo anything-goes 1970s. Another reason is that D&D, like the written word, takes place in the mind rather than on a screen, and so inconsistencies can be papered over by the imagination and a willing suspension of disbelief.

D&D is a cultural mutt, perhaps the ultimate postmodernist pastiche. (As Jeff Rients put it: “You play Conan, I play Gandalf. We team up to fight Dracula.”) As with other collaborative games such as Exquisite Corpse, a session of D&D is never truly finished or closed. The difference is, D&D’s rules and system are open-ended. The game organizer is free to mix-and-match their own inspirations—Gygax and Arneson baked a kind of implied amendment system into their Constitution. “From such sources, as well as any other imaginative writing or screenplay you will be able to pluck kernels from which to grow the fruits of exciting campaigns,” Gygax wrote in Appendix N.

Han Solo and the Millennium Falcon crash-land in the D&D world and need the players’ help? That’ll work. A zombie apocalypse sweeping across a country village? That’ll work. Modern superheroes transported to the age of D&D? That’ll work. Referees can add their own pulpy sources and influences and, somehow, it still holds together.

There were complaints that this melange was ahistorical, especially from players who’d got it in their head D&D was to be a simulation of some sort. At its most basic, the game felt like swords and magic in Ye Olde Merrie England or thereabouts. So why do players fight Jewish golems and Egyptian mummies? Concerted efforts were made to correct Gygax’s “mistakes” and produce more historically-accurate role-playing games, such as Chivalry & Sorcery and Fantasy Wargaming. Those titles drifted into obscurity while D&D’s popularity intensified. Gygax’s and Arneson’s reception to inspiration from all sources—their “lightning rod”—was a feature, not a bug.

Not only does Appendix N indicate how widely-read Gygax and Arneson were, it also suggests how widely-read they expected the players to be. D&D wasn’t merely made by smart people, it was made for smart people.

Gygax could have used Appendix N to recommend movies, TV shows, or comic books, but chose not to. “I would never add other media forms to a reading list,” Gygax wrote in 2007, a year before his death. “If someone is interested in comic books and/or graphic novels, they’re on their own.” For me, this quote seals just how highly Gygax regarded the written word.

This post was adapted for Internet Archive’s blog: “The Fantasy Books that Inspired Dungeons & Dragons”

Books & movies to pick up while social distancing yourself

Albert Camus

Over the past week, the more I tell myself I will not live in fear or succumb to panic, the more I wonder if I’m fooling myself. Such are the unusual times we’re in.

My rule-of-thumb has been to halve whatever heat the press applies to its current hot topic—to recognize it’s in the media’s interests to double a controversial topic’s magnitude to sell more advertising. For the current outbreak of coronavirus, however, dividing by two still yields a large number.

Watching the spread of COVID-19 in near real-time on my computer screen, my thoughts keep returning to a certain class of story, ones that deal with mass disease, plague, and creeping horror.

With social distancing becoming chic and more people staying home nights, here’s a selection of books and movies that offer food for thought for uncertain times:

The Plague

Often read as an allegory of the French Resistance during World War II, it’s just as enriching to read Albert Camus’ classic as a straight accounting of bubonic plague striking an Algerian town.

The novel’s first section reads like a cribbed summary of the past three months. The town government is slow to respond to the first signs of outbreak, and then they attempt to downplay and muzzle news of the disease. The townspeople are initially detached, even sarcastic, about the oncoming epidemic. Doctors hesitate to utter its name. Only when the horror is plain is there a complete lock-down of the city. We haven’t seen food riots or looting—yet—but Camus’ depiction of citizens being shot while escaping quarantine, and paranoia stoking bigotry and violence, naturally makes me wonder which is worse: the disease or its targets.

“A good hour wasted!” the inspector sighed when the door closed behind them. “As you can guess, we’ve other things to think about, what with this fever everybody’s talking of.”

He then asked the doctor if there was any serious danger to the town; Rieux answered that he couldn’t say.

“It must be the weather,” the police officer decided. “That’s what it is.”

What does The Plague depict that we’re not seeing today? Camus’ gallows humor, for one. The San Francisco of thirty years ago would be holding end-of-the-world parties right now, and plague doctors’ masks would be the hot fashion item of the season. Instead, San Francisco went from boom town to ghost town over the course of a single weekend. Camus’ interrogation of God’s will versus nature’s blind force are scarce today too. It appears everyone’s more-or-less agreed on the science behind COVID-19, although conspiracies abound—perhaps our culture’s new religion.

“Well, I know. And I don’t need any post-mortems. I was in China for a good part of my career, and I saw some cases in Paris twenty years ago. Only no one dared to call them by their name on that occasion. The usual taboo, of course; the public mustn’t be alarmed, that would do at all. … ‘It’s unthinkable. Everyone knows it ceased to appear in western Europe.’ Yes, everyone knew that—except the dead men.”

I like to think Camus’ main characters recognized the absurdity of fleas on grungy rats sending an entire city into a locked-down panic. Maybe in the future we’ll have a rounder perspective of the 2019-2020 coronavirus. Not today, apparently.

12 Monkeys

One of my favorite films. In Terry Gilliam’s near future, mankind lives underground after an unnamed virus killed five billion people and made the Earth’s surface uninhabitable. A convict is sent backwards in time not to prevent the near-extinction event, but to gather information about the virus so future scientists may develop a vaccine.

“We did it!”
(Jeff Kramer, CC BY 2.0)

As with The Plague, 12 Monkeys is laden with absurdity and irony even though the subject matter is dead-serious. The ending is ambiguous, but one reading is even more fatalistic than Camus’ novel. “All I see are dead people,” the convict mutters as he peers around a thriving 1990s America.

Then there’s the scene where the viral spread is recalled by counting off the cities it was first detected in, much as we’re talking about Wuhan, Italy, King County, and so forth. The 12 Monkeys virus was communicated quickly due to modern airline travel, which again sounds awfully familiar. Of all the titles in this list, 12 Monkeys hews closest to today’s reality.

Orwell’s war-time diaries

While not strictly about plague or pestilence, Orwell’s diaries of London life during World War II have remarkable currency. Reading his private thoughts during the London blitz are Orwell at his most claustrophobic.

Orwell records the daily despairs overheard in pubs and tobacconists, the griping over the stark wartime rationing, and his own dulled sense that he’s grown accustomed to the sound of airplane gunfire. London’s citizens black out their windows and stay at home fretting over the newspaper and beside the radio. Above all, he writes of his suspicions that government censors were holding back embarrassments on England’s progress in the war—and most likely lying through their teeth, although “there is probably more suppression than downright lying.”

The usual Sunday crowds drifting to and fro, perambulators, cycling clubs, people exercising dogs, knots of young men loitering at street corners, with not an indication in any face or in anything that one can overhear that these people grasp that they are likely to be invaded within a few weeks, though today all the Sunday papers are telling them so. The response to renewed appeals for evacuation of children from London has been very poor. Evidently the reasoning is, “The air raids didn’t happen last time, so they won’t happen this time.”

His diaries ring of today’s self-quarantines, the lines at the supermarkets, the daily sense of uncertainty, and each morning checking the Web knowing the infection numbers will only be rising. Our government is now holding public health meetings in secret. At least our press is free enough to report that much.

There are days Orwell sounds resigned to England being overrun by the Nazis, and there are days when he’s even more apocalyptic. Orwell, ever the Socialist, grimly cheers himself up by predicting the end of the war would trigger a workers’ revolution and the end of capitalism. It’s an unusually millenarianist moment for the author of 1984 and Animal Farm, and one where his predictive powers failed him.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

The 1956 thriller is a classic of Red Scare film-making. The 1976 remake with Donald Sutherland and Leonard Nimoy is creepier and—improbably—campier. Extraterrestrial spores quietly rain down on Earth to infect humans while they sleep. One by one, humanity is replaced with emotionless, purposeless clones.

The 1956 original is interpreted as either a caution against Communism or anti-Communism, making it the ultimate McCarthy-era open text. The 1976 remake is on several lists of post-Watergate conspiracy thrillers, yet it’s even less politically-charged than the original. As with my suggestion about The Plague, what if both were simply viewed through the lenses of infection and contamination?

When the aliens are perfect clones—when an infected person is outwardly healthy—it’s impossible to know who to be wary of, and so people rely on less reliable and less noble signals to judge unclean. By the middle of Body Snatchers, every major and minor character who comes into the shot leaves you asking, “Are they—?” There’s the awful hesitation these days when people shake hands. There’s the dismalness of watching people scurry away from a blown nose or a sneeze.

Meanwhile, Kevin McCarthy’s plea for everyone to listen and see what’s coming sounds eerily like the health care professionals who warned the public of the coming epidemic, especially those who were censored or warned about spreading rumors:

Paranoia—fatalism—taboo—absurdity. I’m not claiming this list will cheer you up. Perhaps it’s helpful to see people at their best and worst when fear is spreading like a disease. Maybe it’s comforting to know we’re not the first to experience this dread. There’s a light, even if it’s not the end of the tunnel.